Sam Kouvaris: NFL, Khan, players and protests

By Sam Kouvaris - Sports Director
Headline Goes Here Getty Images

When Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem in 2016, he did so to protest what he perceived as racial inequities America.

In his only comment about his action, Kaepernick said, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."  

At the time of his initial sitting and then kneeling, Barak Obama was president of the United States and the political season was just heating up.

While Kaepernick had his supporters and his detractors, protesting during the anthem didn’t become part of the national discourse, outside of sports, until President Trump said in front of a partisan rally in Alabama on September 23 that an NFL owner should respond to a kneeling player, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired.”

That sparked a firestorm of reaction, both in sports and across the country, some in support of the president, others, including NFL players, strongly disagreeing.

In London the Jaguars players gathered the night before the game to organize a team action, including owner Shad Khan, VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin and Head Coach Doug Marrone in their discussion.

“Whatever we were going to do,” Marrone said after the game at Wembley, “We wanted to do as a team.

Being the first game of the day, a 9:30 a.m. start in the US, the Jaguars actions and reactions to the President’s remarks set the tone for the rest of the day.  

Some players knelt in protest during the national anthem, others, including Khan and Marrone, locked arms in what they called “solidarity.”

At the moment it was shown in Jacksonville, my phone started buzzing in London with the same general theme from those watching who knew I was at the game, ” . . on foreign soil . . .”

Talking to the players in the locker room after the Jaguars victory over Baltimore, they weren’t any more in favor of Kaepernick’s original statement, but rather were mad at the President.
“He shouldn’t be telling us what to do,” said one player who knelt during the anthem.

“God bless them,” Khan said in his suite at Wembley when asked by Sports Illustrated of what he thought about his players protest.  It’s clear the Jaguars owner saw it as a First Amendment issue while some of his fellow NFL owners believe it’s a workplace issue between management and employees. 

Dallas owner Jerry Jones said last week that Cowboys players who protest during the anthem won’t play in the game.  His team, his rules. The First Amendment protects us against prosecution regarding free speech, but joining an organization (i.e. a football team) means abiding by their rules. You can’t be arrested for kneeling during the anthem but you can be fired.

In retrospect, it was a strategic mistake by the organization, outlined by Jaguars President Mark Lamping in a letter to the city of Jacksonville Director of Military Affairs Bill Spann. Lamping, Khan and Coughlin met with Spann and members of the local military community on October 5 to discuss the implications of the Jaguars kneeling in London, and then standing for “God Save the Queen.”

“We were remiss in not fully comprehending the effect of the national anthem demonstration occurring on foreign soil has had on the men and women who have or continue to serve our country.” Lamping wrote on October 6. “Similarly, we today can better appreciate how standing for God Save the Queen may have been viewed negatively by our armed forces in Jacksonville and beyond."

"The notion never entered the minds of our players or anyone affiliated with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but today we can understand how the events in London on September 24 could have been viewed or misinterpreted. We owe you an apology and hope you will accept it."

Perhaps there is no other NFL town with a stronger military connection than Jacksonville.  A city originally designed around it’s military bases, it’s not just the families of those who serve who are part of the community but civilian contractors, veterans and friends are a part of it as well.  

While the players said they meant no disrespect to the flag or to our military, it was perceived as unpatriotic to many who are part of the military community. If the players want to be respected for their perception of inequality and form of protest, they must also respect the perception of those who believe their form of protest was a slap at the military and those who have served.

Feeling the effects of part of their fan base that was unhappy, the Jaguars offered refunds to season ticket holders who requested them.  The team didn’t offer any specific numbers on how many requests they received but clearly the lowest attendance figure last Sunday since Khan bought the team is an indicator that some fans are still angry.

A confluence of a night game in Gainesville for Florida, a traditional dislike for 4 o’clock games by Jaguars fans and those who stayed home over the anthem protest contributed to that smaller number.

A group of 13 NFL owners, including Khan, met with former and current league players Tuesday morning in New York to discuss what the next step might be. Last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams expressing the league’s desire to “move past” the anthem controversy.

“Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” Goodell wrote.  “It is an important moment in our game. We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us. We also care deeply about our players and respect their opinions and concerns about critical social issues. The controversy over the anthem is a barrier to having honest conversations and making real progress on the underlying issues. We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”

After Tuesday's meeting, the NFL and the NFL Players Association issued a joint statement saying they met “to review and discuss plans to utilize our platform to promote equality and effectuate positive change. Everyone who is part of our NFL community has a tremendous respect for our country, our flag, our anthem and our military.  In the best American tradition, we are coming together to find common ground and commit to the hard work required for positive change.”

It’s a step in the process, opening a dialog to allow the league to avoid the anthem controversy and allow the players a platform to speak their minds.

As a high-profile organization in town, the Jaguars are at the forefront of charitable giving when it comes to hurricane relief and the military.  They should use this platform to open this dialogue.  Former Jaguar Rashean Mathis has had this idea for a while, starting an initiative called “Bridging the Gap” bringing together people from different parts of town to talk.  “Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to talk about these things,” Rashean said last week. “But that’s OK.  Better to talk than not talk.”  

He’s right. That’s the first call the Jaguars should make.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.